Character is a property of narrative and discursive textuality, even as it is also a moral and ethical category referring to individual and collective norms of behavior and motive. This double valence has affected the concept since Aristotle and Plato first began the unfinished, centuries-long project of literary theory. On the one hand, stemming from Aristotle, there has been a tradition of formalist conceptions of character, understanding it as a device used by writers to drive narrative momentum and effect transformations within the discourse. The domain of action, and its variously entailed reactions and consequences, was thought to belong to the agents of narrative discourse by rights, while what was generally called their “character” typically concerned the incidental qualifications and explanations of their actions in speech and thought. Once that distinction is made, however, there are smaller and smaller units into which agency can logically be subdivided, and more and more arbitrary and capricious qualities of character used to flesh out an abstract narratological principle. The histories of formalism, structuralism, and poststructuralism attest to this labor of specialization and fissiparous subdivision of the bound concepts of agent and character. On the other hand, stemming from Plato, we see a centuries-long interest in the mutually interactive relations between imaginary persons, or fictional selves, and the fashioning of public or social selves in regimes of education and discipline. The question of the role of literary characters in the formation of good citizens, or indeed delinquent ones, is one that refuses to go away, since it has proven impossible to separate fiction from reality in the complex processes of self-fashioning through which every subject must go. One last matter of interest has exerted more theoretical influence over the concept in recent years, and that is the topic of affects: the qualities and intensities of human feelings can be seen to have had a major bearing on the writing and elaboration of fictional beings, and vice versa, at least since the late 19th century.
From the Platonic ur-antiformalism, the reaction to which gave shape and purpose to classical and early modern literary theory, to the agon between form and history that dominated 20th-century literary criticism and pedagogy, the concept of form and the methodologies of its study (formalism) have at once grounded and challenged our understanding of literature. Is form an ornament or supplement to literature’s essential content, a component of literature’s meaning and function, or the very defining essence of the literary? Does form inhere in the macro-structures of literary mode and genre, the micro-structures of figure, style, and prosody, or the unique shape of the individual text? Does form stand apart and insulated from the vicissitudes of history and the pressures of ideology, is it the object (or agent) of historical and ideological determination, or does it provide us a vantage from which to understand and perhaps resist them? These questions and the variety of answers they have generated have shaped and continue to shape both the practice of literary studies and its status as an academic discipline.